John Barrymore has by far the most outrageous trivia of all of the great actors. I love these two stories, the utter wrongness and macabre disconnect between the way reverent and irreverent persons approach death is fascinating to me. Lacking religion utterly, I kind of appreciate the demystification of the sanctity of the dead body thing. Probably just because death rituals unnerve me.
Firstly, it is known that he was an addict and carouser and part of a scandalous wolfpack of hard drinking, womanizing prankster sons of bitches, one of whom was Errol Flynn. Barrymore died in 1942 after years of serious self-abuse.
"After Barrymore's death, his friends - including Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh - gathered at a bar to commiserate on John's passing. Walsh, claiming he was too upset, pretended to go home. Instead, he and two friends went to the funeral home and bribed the caretaker to lend them Barrymore's body. Transporting it to Flynn's house, it was propped up in Errol's favorite living room chair. Flynn arrived and described his reaction in his autobiography: "As I opened the door I pressed the button. The lights went on and - I stared into the face of Barrymore... They hadn't embalmed him yet. I let out a delirious scream... I went back in, still shaking. I retired to my room upstairs shaken and sober. My heart pounded. I couldn't sleep the rest of the night."
I thought about this story while watching Celebrity Ghost Stories, my not-so-secret guilty pleasure tv show, in which B-list and below celebrities narrate their personal experiences with the paranormal, from haunted hotels to seeing their own dead children. One of my favorite segments is the one with Tracy Nelson, daughter of Ricky Nelson. Her family moved into Errol Flynn's former home when she was a girl, at which point she felt traumatized by strange experiences and a general sense of aggression and activity in the house. Was this the same house where they propped Barrymore's body 30 years before? Perhaps. Tracy hated the house and felt unsafe at all times. It's gone now, having burned to the ground inexplicably.
The other fucked up Barrymore story involves his son, also named John:
"Barrymore left specific instructions that he be cremated and his ashes be buried next to his parents in the family cemetery in Philadelphia. However, as his brother Lionel Barrymore and sister Ethel Barrymore were Catholic and cremation was not then sanctioned by the Church, the executors (Lionel and Mervyn LeRoy) had Barrymore's remains entombed at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles. In 1980, John Drew Barrymore decided to have his dad cremated, and recruited his son John Blyth Barrymore to help. They removed the casket from its crypt, drove it to the Odd Fellows Cemetery, and made the preparations. John Jr. insisted on having a look inside before they left. After viewing the body, he came out white as a sheet, got in the car and said to his son, "Thank God I'm drunk, I'll never remember it."
I found a much longer retelling, allegedly by the grandson John Blyth Barrymore, posted on the internet here. Quite dark and strange, it's interesting what remains with people over the decades, that the son was so traumatized by the subverted wishes of the father about where to put his body. I can't decide if this sort of thing matters or not! I say no, but it certainly is a big deal for others.
This picture definitely makes me think about the bit about the nose cartilage.